Foundation industries: catalyst for change

Industry in dramatic red sunset light. Chimneys and cooling tower of a coal fired power station.

Kyra Campbell discusses the crucial role of foundation industries in reducing our carbon footprint.

As a kid, the growing size of the ozone layer played a prominent role in my litany of environmental worries. With the identification of chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) as the main culprit, it took individual efforts at the outset and in time a ban on CFCs by 197 countries.

Whilst the depletion of the ozone layer is not resolved, rather the ozone layer is in a healing process (we hope), a collective global effort to protect our planet for future generations can be made.

Now, for kids and adults alike, the role of carbon dioxide (CO2) (and other greenhouse gases, including methane) in global climate change has heightened our individual and collective concerns, and for good reason.

Addressing the elephant in the room

Impressively, the rise of individual contribution to reduce our overall carbon footprint is happening in an incredibly dramatic way.

In the UK a surge in vegan and locally-sourced eating are signs of the individual effort. As is both the increasing popularity of alternatively-powered vehicles both by individuals and on a larger-scale, for example, buses.

However, much like the story of the CFCs, the changes have to come on a bigger scale. And we are starting to see that at the United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP26). More countries are pledging to phase out coal power, including five top-20 generators:

  • South Korea
  • Indonesia
  • Vietnam
  • Poland
  • Ukraine.

Some are agreeing to stop building new coal plants.

Publicly some countries are already acknowledging the money freed up by this and the re-investment into clean energy. But these sparks of hope are dulled by the reality that major coal consumers are not engaged with coal reduction; in fact coal usage is even rising in some places.

Here in the UK we are taking our own steps to reduce our reliance on coal for electricity production. This has dropped off in the last ten years to a very small proportion of total electricity generated nationally.

And in the context of this non-political blog, the authorship, from the Future Leaders Group (FLG) of the transforming foundation industries (TFI), we do not want to advocate for simply adapting. We are advocating for the UK manufacturing sector leading.

So that means more than questioning the electricity sources used in manufacturing, it means addressing the elephant in the room.

Coal is still at the heart of two of the UK’s foundation industries:

  • steel
  • cement

The answer will only be found in new innovation and technology.

The role of UK’s manufacturing industry

Going further, how does the UK manufacturing industry lead globally in environmental consciousness? In the first instance, we have to acknowledge that it isn’t simply about CO2 emissions.

At COP26 the reality about environmental consciousness was on display with discussions around all aspects of how we collectively impact the environment. Much of which often falls under the heading of circular economy.

How do we:

  • take less from the Earth
  • reuse as much as we can
  • recycle when necessary (and can this too be efficient)
  • recover what we have already wasted?

What’s more challenging for the foundation industries of the UK is how they choose to define their responsibilities, and which responsibilities they can divest.

The foundation industries rely on inputs and produce outputs. In short, it isn’t simply about changing the manufacturing technology itself but about the whole ecosystem.

That’s why our manufacturing foundation industries can be the catalyst for change. (Excited by circular economy in foundation industries, read more in next month’s blog by Lucy Smith.)

Rethinking manufacturing

Modern electronics research, development facility: Black Female engineer does computer motherboard soldering.

Credit: gorodenkoff, Getty Images

These industries can question where their inputs come from, and their green credentials. That means thinking about the power and energy, the heat, the water, the feedstocks and other material inputs.

It means thinking about the transportation of those inputs into the site. On the other end, it means thinking about the transportation of the products off the site and where the products end up, what is their ‘life story’, so to speak.

In academic parlance, who holds this responsibility is down to where you draw the boundaries in your life cycle analysis. But in practical terms, the industrial sector is pinched in how to become truly environmentally conscious without holistic changes to the entire ecosystem.

Flipping that on its head, instead of being caught, these industries can become the catalyst for change. Our UK foundation industries can start by asking questions about how their overall picture looks, and that’s when change can begin to happen.

Asking questions powers change

Maybe reading this, you already have a question, maybe many questions. You might be wondering if there are really any realistic technologies on the horizon that can replace coal in the steelmaking process.

You might be wondering if foundation industries are considering using renewable sources for electricity and energy. You might want to know what our UK foundation industries are doing to use sustainable raw material inputs in their processes.

What are your questions? Share them with us (#TFI_FLG) so we can work to get you answers. Asking questions powers change.

The transforming foundation industries challenge is delivered by Innovate UK.

Top image:  Credit: Schroptschop, Getty Images

This is the website for UKRI: our seven research councils, Research England and Innovate UK. Let us know if you have feedback or would like to help improve our online products and services.